Spectacle Island

With panoramic views of the Boston Harbor and an accessible lifeguarded beach, Spectacle Island is ideal for outdoor adventures or a relaxing day by the sea.

Introduction

Spectacle is the newest addition to the Boston Harbor Islands. Like all the other islands, it’s been around since the last Ice Age. But for the last 50 years it’s been an abandoned city garbage dump with smoldering underground methane fires. Before that, Spectacle was the site of a factory that rendered the city’s dead horses into glue and hides.

Boston’s Central Artery/Tunnel project led to the island’s reincarnation as the park we see today. Beginning in the early 1990s some 4,400 barge-loads of dirt excavated from the Big Dig were used to cap the old dump, before the addition of topsoil and vegetation. The island’s height increased by 60 feet.

The “new” Spectacle Island finally reopened to the public in 2006 with a visitor’s center, a cafe, a substantial marina, and ferry service, making it a hub of the Harbor Islands Park.

Navigation

Approaches

Most sailors approach Spectacle on the west side, either headed for the island’s marina or enroute to the Long Island bridge. Moderate depths of 6 to 14 feet at low and buoys on the shallow areas mean this is uncomplicated; the water stays deep enough for most sailboats to get as close to shore as they’d care to.

The east side is quite different. Here off-lying rocks and shoals extend the length of the island, while tidy new riprap on shore creates the impression of a bold coastline. Much of the excavated material from the Big Dig came to Spectacle by barge to “cap and fill” the island. Extensive changes to the visible parts of the island are obvious; changes to the nearby waters are still uncharted as of 2007. It’s best to pass the east side of Spectacle a careful distance off.

For a look at changes to the waters around Spectacle, see the chart essay.

Inexplicably, Sculpin Ledge, south of the island, catches a boat or two every year.

Not for navigation

Anchorages

Boats don’t often anchor off Spectacle. For most of the 20th century it was literally a dump, off-limits to the public or under construction. Now open, there are no obvious anchorages. Waters east of the island are exposed in almost every direction. On the opposite side, Western Way is heavily travelled by boats going under the Long Island bridge — including a full schedule of big, fast-moving water shuttles.

Moorings

There are ten moorings to the north of the marina. These can be reserved and paid for on Dockwa.

Slips

The Spectacle Island Marina on the west side opened to the public in 2006. For the 2020 season the marina was first come first served and no charge to tie up. Check Dockwa for the latest information. There is some shelter from wakes behind its pier. Note that the innermost slips have very little water at low and are not suitable for keelboats.

Charts

Not for navigation. Charts are not updated. 

Going Ashore

It will be interesting to see how Spectacle develops. Of the islands open to the public, it’s closest to downtown, with the best docks, an active ferry schedule, and the most facilities for visitors. Clearly the hope is that Spectacle will be an attraction in it’s own right while serving as a gateway to the rest of the harbor islands.

The overlapping city, state, federal and private agencies that own, manage and fund the islands is a skein that’s difficult to untangle. The result so far of this quirky structure is a park full of islands each retaining a unique identity. Spectacle adds a new dimension.

The man-made landscape and proximity to the city give Spectacle a transitional feel. It’s not the mainland, but nor does it quite give you the half-wild, another-world feel of the outer islands, like the Brewsters or even Lovell.

📷 Geoff Rand
Looking south from the visitors center towards Long Island.
📷 Geoff Rand

One Hour Ashore

The ranger we spoke with said the single best attraction on the island is the view back to the city from the north drumlin. It’s a 2.5 mile loop from the marina.

Off the Beaten Path

Walking the other way, towards the south drumlin, gets you views out towards the rest of the islands.

Maritime History

The visitors center has a nicely executed exhibit on the island’s history. It’s quick and it’s free.

Favorite tidbit is that the north end of the island used to have a set of range lights marking the channel into the Inner Harbor.

Services

Facilities / Fitting Out

Spectacle has no supplies for a sailboat. There is water, toilets, and a seasonal snack bar ashore.

Contacts

Book with Dockwa

Boston Harbor Island National and State Park

Boston Harbor Now

Boston Harbor Now is the non-profit partner of the 34-island Boston Harbor Islands National and State Park

Chart Essay

A NOAA chart of Spectacle before the Big Dig fill. The round drumlins north and south and the narrow middle gave the island its "spectacle" shape and name. Note the two range markers at the north end, now gone, which used to define a line into the harbor.
This image is derived from the electronic version of paper charts (raster charts) published during the Big Dig. It seems to imagine a "biggest case scenario" in which dry landfill extends out to the old 6 foot contour. Charts like this were still in wide circulation in 2006, but the island never got this big.
Aerial photo of Spectacle in 2005, several years after filling was completed. The length of the island is little changed, but the narrow middle has thickened substantially. Detail has been removed from the water regions of this image (eg Sculpin Ledge is not visible), but the green areas along the east (right) coast correspond closely to the intertidal zone in the old chart.
In this image the land portion of the aerial photo is superimposed on the old chart, suggesting that the new landmass, while thicker in the middle than before, doesn't completely cover the old intertidal zone.
This shows the landmass (yellow), intertidal (green) and 6 foot contour (light blue) from NOAA's 2007 ENC (Electronic Navigation Chart, vector format) superimposed on the old chart. Here the landmass agrees with the aerial photo, while the intertidal around the north half of the island extends out to the old 6 foot contour.
NOAA's 2007 RNC (Raster Navigation Chart) also shows the enlarged intertidal zone around the north half of the island. The dashed border around green areas indicates they are insufficiently surveyed.
This composite image suggests how Spectacle approximately looks in 2007. The east side has long been surrounded by rocks and shallows, and it is not well charted following the Big Dig alterations to the island.

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Peter DP
Peter DP
2 months ago

This cruising guide is *exactly* the thing for which I’ve searching! This is super helpful information. Thank you so very much for putting all this together!

Spectacle Island

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